Social Law Library Author Series
by John Pedini
Director of Media Services, Social Law Library
What does Professor Alan Dershowitz think of the O.J. Simpson criminal prosecution team? Why did he regret a victory that kept John Lennon from being deported in the `70's? Why does he believe hatred for criminal defense lawyers is a good sign for America? The answers to these and many other questions were brought to the light as the Social Law Library's Author Series featured the Harvard Law School Professor, world-famous criminal defense lawyer, prolific author and media celebrity on Wednesday, December 19, 2001. With a very receptive crowd packed into the Library's Main Reading Room, Professor Dershowitz spoke with his trademark candor, wit and, at times, self-effacing humor on his latest book, Letters To A Young Lawyer.
If anyone is known for a comprehensive body of legal knowledge, it is Alan Dershowitz. His legacy is already legend. At 28, he was the youngest tenured professor at Harvard Law School. His list of even nominally famous clients, the likes of which include Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky, hotel scion and noted tax refusenik Leona Helmsly and misguided auto entrepreneur John Z. DeLorean, make for a who's who of American trial lore. His books and articles have been translated into dozens of languages. His opinion is sought by presidential committees and talk show hosts alike. He even has a legal knick name: the Lawyer of Last Resort. So when he decides to write a book offering advice to young lawyers, it would be wise to pay heed. Many young and not-so-young lawyers (some already judges!) and us lay folk attended his defense of his latest publication.
Not surprisingly, the audience was perhaps divided in its opinion of Professor Dershowitz from the outset. Many, regarding his defense of ignominious characters such as O.J. Simpson and Claus von Bulow, see him as contemptible. Others, noting his omnipresent media celebrity persona and outspokenness, find him annoying. The true believers, citing his record on civil rights and service to those in special need of appellate counsel, regard him as the very essence of the American legal profession. To say he won over a few converts as the night progressed, though, is a certainty. In the relaxed and confident manner that has made him a media darling, Professor Dershowitz graciously received a stirring introduction from Library Executive Director Robert J. Brink and launched into a thoughtful and relatively free form string of reminiscences, observations, admissions and suggestions.
A self-professed "bad student" in elementary and high school, he had barely made it into a college of his choice (Brooklyn), or any college for that matter. He became more ardent in higher education and then his legal studies at Yale, becoming editor-in-chief of the law journal.
A criminal defense lawyer at heart, he became disenchanted with some of the paragons of the judicial system, notably Clarence Darrow and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who were, according to Professor Dershowitz, possessed of questionable ethical beliefs and, in some cases, practices (Darrow reputably bribed witnesses and jurors). Creating his own list of dubious legal saints gave rise to one chapter in the book about choosing heroes wisely, and, citing which, he discussed the importance of young lawyers to avoid blind worship. Another chapter, dealing with creating an enemies list, advises beginning advocates not to be afraid of generating negative attention in the interest of dealing with legal integrity. Professor Dershowitz also counseled young lawyers to refrain from doing what they were best at in favor of what they enjoyed the most, thereby securing longevity and satisfaction over possible burnout and cynicism.
Then his comments turned to a more personal note. Professor Dershowitz is still, after all, a human being much like the rest of us and, as such, is treated to the same set of circumstances, albeit sometimes on an understandably grander scale. He recalled attending Yom Kippur services immediately after the Simpson acquittal,and in a part of the ceremony where the congregation is asked to pound their hearts and respond to the question as to whether they had counseled evil, all eyes, according to Professor Dershowitz, that had been previously averted his direction were suddenly and pointedly fixed upon him at the utterance of this query. Even at his oration in the Library, amongst devotees, detractors and the few who still may not have an opinion, he came up against a member of the audience he described as his "own personal stalker", a disenfranchised intellectual of questionable hygiene, even taking time to acknowledge him by name, only to have the poor miscreant demand an answer to a question that had nothing at all to do with the proceedings whatsoever, and was of a dubious nature to boot!
On the lighter side, Professor Dershowitz can lay some claim to having a life reminiscent of the average Joe. On thenight of the presentation, his car service failed to pick him up at Bachrach Studios on Boylston St. and a Library employee had to escort him, by foot, to the Suffolk County Courthouse because he was not sure of the way (a little too much time in the ivory towers of academia, perhaps-Ed.). Then, after the question and answer period, he had to leave in a huff to catch a Celtics game. Bet he picked up a dog and a beer before getting in his seat!
Oh, and the answers to the questions? He thinks the O.J. criminal prosecution team was the "most inept bunch of lawyers/prosecutors he had ever seen", who "handed the case to the defense on a silver platter". As for the Lennon case, he feels as though if he had lost the case, John Lennon might be alive and well in London or Liverpool. Lennon's widow Yoko Ono thinks it wasn't the case at all. She claims the eight years John spent living in New York after that case were the "happiest of his life". (Make of that what you will—it allowed her to remain in the United States permanently, and Lennon's killer could have just as easily flown to London as he did to New York _ Ed.) Finally, Professor Dershowitz believes that a healthy hatred of high profile self-serving criminal defense lawyers, such as we Americans enjoy, is a true sign of a vital, functioning democracy. Talk about the good life.
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